China warns of virus that has killed 23 children

May 04, 2008|By Barbara Demick | Barbara Demick,Los Angeles Times

BEIJING -- The Chinese Health Ministry issued a nationwide alert yesterday on a virus that has killed 23 children and sickened more than 4,000 others, as it scrambled to fend off a potential scandal over a coverup.

The latest victim of enterovirus-71 was an 18-month-old boy in southern Guangdong province who died Friday. The death was the first outside the Anhui province city of Fuyang, 1,000 miles to the north.

Disease has also broken out in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam, although no deaths have been reported there.

The virus is a perennial in the summer months in Asia, but the outbreak this year appears to be larger than usual. Because the disease usually peaks in June and July, more deaths are expected.

Kindergartens in Fuyang have been ordered closed until mid-May, and residents described an atmosphere of panic. One newspaper, the Liaoshen Evening News, printed a large headline reading simply "Death," next to a photo of a health inspection van parked in front of a kindergarten.

"There are noticeably very few children or infants on the street," said a student, 24, from Fuyang who asked not to be named.

Chinese health officials were quoted on state television Friday saying that as part of the nationwide alert, they would send doctors out in search of patients rather than waiting for them to come to the hospital.

In this latest case, parents in Fuyang have accused local health officials of lying about the disease. At a news conference, Fuyang officials acknowledged only "several deaths" and implied that the disease was not contagious. At one kindergarten where a child died, staff reportedly were told they would be fired if they leaked news of the death.

Enterovirus-71 is characterized by fever, sores in the mouth and blistering rashes. Sometimes known as hand, foot and mouth disease, it is not related to the similarly named disease that afflicts cattle. Most cases are not fatal, and the contagion usually can be controlled by hand washing and improved hygiene, according to a notice posted Thursday by the World Health Organization about the outbreak in China. The agency said "it is not necessary to restrict travel or trade."

Barbara Demick writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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